An elderly gentleman operated an antique shop in a large
tourist city. A visitor to his store
once came in and began conversing with the old gentleman. The tourist asked about some of the items
that were piled all throughout the store.
Said the tourist, “What would you say is the strangest, most mysterious
thing you have here?” The old man looked
around at the unique art, the stuffed animals, the old toys, wonderful
stones. He then replied to the tourist,
“The strangest and most mysterious thing in this shop is unquestionably me.”
A teacher was lecturing her students on modern
inventions. “Can any of you name something
of importance that did not exist fifty years ago?” she asked the class. One bright young girl, sitting near the
front, raised her hand and said, “Me!”
(Anthony DeMillo, Taking Flight, 131)
Mysterious, strange perhaps, unique, important – me,
myself and I. Yet such thoughts seem to
run counter to much of Scripture and Christian tradition. C. S. Lewis, in the words used in our
invitation to worship, gives us every reason to suspect the self. “You are a bundle of self-centered fears,
hopes, greeds, jealousies, and self-conceit.”
Not a very flattering portrait, but one not foreign to much Christian
thinking. These words come from the
Eastern monastic tradition of Christianity, from about the eighth century: There is no greater evil than that of self-love. The winged children of self-love are
self-praise, self-satisfaction, gluttony, unchastity, self-esteem, jealousy and
the crown of all these, pride. Pride can
drag down not men alone, but even angels from heaven, and surround them with
darkness instead of light. (St. Hesychios the Priest, Philokalia, I:198)
Today’s Scripture readings would lead us to be suspicious
of any celebrations of the self. James
issues a warning against self-ambition, a caution against the cravings of the
self. Selfish ambition leads to disorder
and wickedness, disputes and conflicts.
The words of Jesus seem to caution against being too fond of
oneself. “Whoever wants to be first must
be last of all and servant of all.”
Me, myself and I seems to be a problem for a Jesus spirituality. Self easily inflates, and we must guard
against that. Self craves, and those
cravings are trouble. As an alternative
way we are directed toward being pure, gentle, willing to yield, and
merciful. As an alternative way we are
offered the image of a child, a virtual nobody in the culture of Jesus time.
I don’t know about you, but to see the self only as a
problem is itself problematic. In
college I majored in both philosophy and psychology. I was drawn to psychology in high school, and
I was particularly drawn to the work of Abraham Maslow, a vitally important
figure in what was often called “humanistic psychology.” Maslow, in his work, views self-esteem quite
differently. “No psychological health is
possible unless this essential core of the person is fundamentally accepted,
loved and respected by others and by himself” (Toward a Psychology of Being, 196). For Maslow,
this is not simply the popular idea that we need to feel good about
ourselves. It is more complex and
robust. Self-esteem and self-respect
needs are desires for genuine achievement, for “real capacity, competence, and
adequacy to the task” (Maslow, Motivation and Personality, Second Edition, 45-46). In other
words we have needs for esteem and love that include some sense of our own
abilities to affect the world. Maslow: Satisfaction of the self-esteem need leads
to feelings of self-confidence, worth, strength, capability, and adequacy, of
being useful and necessary in the world (Motivation and Personality, 45)
Another psychologist from whom I have and continue to
learn a lot from is Rollo May. He also
writes profoundly about self-esteem. To be sure, one ought not to think too
highly of one’s self, and a courageous humility is the mark of the realistic
and mature person. But thinking too
highly of oneself, in the sense of self-inflation and conceit, does not come
from greater consciousness of one’s self or greater feelings of
self-worth. In fact, it comes from just
the opposite. Self-inflation and conceit
are generally the external signs of inner emptiness and self-doubt; a show of
pride is one of the most common covers for anxiety. (Man’s Search for Himself, 97)
Christian Scriptures and tradition caution us against an
inflated sense of self, against selfish ambition, against too great a concern
for personal “greatness.” Psychologists
complicate the picture by arguing for the importance of self-esteem. They also point out that self-inflation often
comes not from too much self-esteem, but from too little – from emptiness and
self-doubt. Certainly Jesus and James
were not interested in fostering a sense of emptiness and self-doubt that would,
ironically, feed the very kind of self-aggrandizement they find problematic.
How do we fit all this together? What does an appropriate Christian sense of
self look like? I think William
Stringfellow, also in our Invitation to Worship, is on to something when he
writes, “what it means to be a Christian is, wonderfully, just synonymous with
what it means to be, no more and no less than a human being.” What does it mean to be a human being in
relation to God and to others? What
sense of self makes sense?
A Christian sense of self is neither a denigration of
oneself nor self-aggrandizement, being too enamored with oneself. A Christian sense of self has strength and
gentleness. Here are some of its
A Christian sense of self is rooted, above all, in knowing
that we are unalterably and wonderfully loved by God. The first four words of many a Christian’s
favorite Scripture reading are, “For God so loved…” Abraham Maslow indicates that no
psychological health is possible unless this essential core of the person is
fundamentally accepted, loved and respected by others and by himself. I think no deep spiritual health is possible
without knowing deeply and fundamentally that we are accepted and loved by God
just as we are. We are worthy of respect
and self-respect simply because we are.
But genuine self-esteem has something to do with knowing
that we are capable, that we can be adequate to the task. A Christian sense of self recognizes that we
have gifts and strengths and limitations.
The journey with Jesus requires strength. Sometimes our strengths are also part of our
limitations. You have to hand it to the
disciples. They are an audacious
bunch. They leave their everyday lives
behind to follow this Jesus, who they often don’t get. He says that he is going to be in for trouble
in Jerusalem, that his end is death, and they are arguing about who is the
greatest! They wanted to be
significant. They wanted to make a difference. These are gifts, but they can go awry. A courageous humility is an important part of
a Christian sense of self, courage to see our strengths, courage to see our
Humility is another essential element in a Christian sense
of self. I really like what Robert
Emmons writes about humility. Humility is the realistic appraisal of one’s
strengths and weaknesses – neither overestimating nor underestimating
them. To be humble is not to have a low
opinion of oneself, it is to have an accurate opinion of oneself. It is the ability to keep one’s talents and
accomplishments in perspective, to have a sense of self-acceptance, and
understanding of one’s imperfections, and to be free from arrogance and low
self-esteem. (The Psychology of Ultimate Concerns, 171). Humility is
recognizing simultaneously that we are loved deeply and wildly by God, and that
God isn’t finished with us yet.
That sense of being unfinished is also an important
element in a Christian sense of self.
The disciples keep learning and growing in their journey with
Jesus. Jesus holds up welcoming children
in the Gospel reading. Children are open
and vulnerable and growing. Can we
welcome that part of ourselves? Can we
be open and vulnerable and continue to grow – grow in that wisdom that is pure,
peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits (James
But to say that being open and vulnerable is an important
element in a Christian sense of self means more than being open to our own
growth, as important as that is. It also
means being open to the other. A Christian
sense of self understands that our relationships matter, and how we live
together with others not only flows from who we are but shapes who we are. “Show by your good life that your works are
done with gentleness born of wisdom.”
Another essential element in a Christian sense of self is
a recognition of our need for forgiveness.
We are people with high ideals.
We look to Jesus and say we want to be like him. We want to be wise and loving, gentle and
generous. We want to touch the world in
ways that foster justice, peace and reconciliation. We will not always be those people. We will need forgiveness.
Having said that, I want to return to an earlier element
in a Christian sense of self, that we are gifted, that we have strengths. We are and we do, and we need to help each
other discover and use our best gifts, and we need to celebrate those gifts
joyously. Throughout its history, the
church has often focused on humility to the point of humiliation. We have focused on sin and wrongdoing to the
point where we have left people feeling that they are not much good for
anything except to beg God for a modicum of love, and hope that they are good
enough to get some. We’ve not always
done a good job of reminding people of the wild love and grace of God which
loves each of us beyond measure, and that we are created in God’s image with
strengths and gifts.
Here’s the wonderful paradox and mystery at the heart of a
Christian sense of self. At the heart of
a Christian sense of self isn’t the self, but it is God, God who loves us into
being and into blossoming.
There is in the Talmud, that vast and wonderful collection
of Jewish wisdom this wonderful saying.
“Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers ‘Grow,
grow.’” (Midrash Rabba Bereshit 10:6)
Every person has the Spirit of God whispering to them, “You are loved,
become love – grow, grow.” In that we
find our sense of self. In that our
self-esteem is grounded. Listen to the
voice again in your own life. Amen.
So welcome and
here’s your morning quiz. Who sang that
song? [Paul McCartney and Wings] It was for a movie, what kind of movie?
[James Bond] What drink is James Bond
most famous for? [vodka martini – shaken not stirred]
So I looked up
James Bond’s favorite drink. You mix two
parts vodka, with one part dry vermouth, perhaps with a dash of bitters, put it
together with ice and shake it up. Pour
it into a cocktail glass and garnish with an olive. By the way, The United Methodist Church does
not promote the use of alcohol even though I’ve just given you a drink recipe.
ingredients blended together. It is a
little like trying to deal with this morning’s Scripture readings. The verses we read from Psalm 19 are
effusive, splendid, filled with awe and wonder.
Heaven is declaring God’s glory;
the sky is proclaiming God’s handiwork.
One day gushes the news to the next, one night informs another what
needs to be known. What is just as
wondrous is that all this communicating is happening without words – a wordless
sermon, so to speak. Maybe I should give
that a try sometime! Of course, there’s no speech, no words –
their voices can’t be heard – but their sound extends throughout the world;
their words reach the ends of the earth.
Take that ingredient
and blend it with the more serious and austere words from the Gospel of
Mark. Jesus sternly orders the disciples
not to say anything about their insight that he is the Messiah, the Christ. He goes on to say that he will suffer and be
killed and rise. Peter tries to talk
some sense into Jesus, and Jesus calls Peter Satan. Then he tells disciples and crowd alike: If any want to become my followers, let them
deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will
lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the
gospel, will save it. For what will it
profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for
So how do we mix
these two readings together? Together I
think we have here an invitation from Jesus to a new way, to a wild
kingdom. While the language in Mark is
serious and austere, there is in the flow of the conversation a certain wild
element that would not be foreign to the Psalmist. You see, what Peter expected in a Messiah
seemed to be a straight road to power and glory. Somehow God through Jesus was going to
intervene, Rome would be tossed out of Palestine/Israel, and all would be right
with the world. The Jesus way was
different, however – unexpected, wild, a challenging adventure.
It is interesting
that soon after the confession that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus begins to talk
about being a part of this work. “You
are the Messiah,” they say, and Jesus responds, “Here’s what it means to follow
me.” The kingdom Jesus is about is not
just something that’s going to happen, we are invited to be a part of its
happening. The road won’t be straight
and it won’t be easy, but it will be an adventure, a wild ride. To say “no” means risking a life that is no
life at all, a soulless existence. The
Greek word translated “life” can also be translated “soul.” What will it profit them to gain the whole
world and forfeit their soul?
This new life in
Jesus, this soul life, this participation in the wild kingdom of God where day
gushes forth to day, takes everything we have, calls forth our best gifts and
our deepest strengths, but it is a way of joy.
I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, Bonhoeffer the German Christian
theologian who lost his life in the waning days of World War II for his
opposition to the Nazi regime. Where will the call of discipleship lead
those who follow it? What decisions and
painful separations will it entail? We
must take this question to him alone who knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him,
knows where the path will lead. But we
know it will be a path of mercy beyond measure.
Discipleship is joy. (Discipleship, 40)
If there is a
wideness to God’s mercy, and an old hymn proclaims, there is also a wildness to
God’s mercy, and invitation to adventure.
The United Methodist theologian and author Leonard Sweet encourages us
to walk “on the wild side of life, where the winds from the God of Holy
Surprises blow and sing” (quoted in 1995 Conference sermon, “Wildly Wise and
What does that
mean – the wildness of God’s grace, welcome to the wild kingdom? Living in the wild kingdom of God has
something to do with saying “yes” to another 46,000 pounds of potatoes one week
after giving away 46,000 pounds. It has
something to do with gathering for worship on Sunday mornings when many of our
friends and acquaintances consider Sunday morning little more than a few more
hours of pre-game before kick-off.
Living in the wild kingdom of God is the wildness of a tenacious hope,
when there are so many reasons to lose hope in our world – hope amidst the
heartbreak of reading the daily news. It
is to be joyful, though we have considered all the facts, in a wonderful phrase
of Wendell Berry. Spiritual writer and
Christian monk Henri Nouwen puts this well.
“Joyful persons see with open eyes the hard reality of human existence
and at the same time are not imprisoned by it” (quoted in “Wildly Wise and
Winged”). Living in the wild kingdom of
God is loving even when it is hard work to love, being kind even when it is
complicated. Living in the wild kingdom
of God is being generous in a world that often tells us what matters most is to
have the most toys in the end.
Generosity. Today we are embarking on a capital campaign:
People, Place, Purpose – A Promise for
the Future. After nearly fifty years
on the skyline, there are some things that need doing, or doing again. We are not our building. We are our people and the work we do
together, the love we share, the encouragement we provide, the work we do
together for God’s wild kingdom. Our
building helps many things happen. It is
a great place for 90K plus pounds of potatoes to be given away in two weeks,
for instance. I trust as you hear more about
this campaign you will be prayerful and thoughtful about how participating in
it can be part of your wider participation in the wild adventure of God in
Yet Jesus’ invitation
to the soulful life, to God’s wild kingdom is broader, richer, deeper than the
capital campaign. It is an invitation to
the adventure of new life.
Twenty five years
ago my family and I were living in Dallas, Texas. Our family was smaller then. Our daughter Sarah is not yet
twenty-five. I was working on my Ph.D.
and working as a youth pastor at a United Methodist Church, and Julie was
teaching school. Twenty five years ago,
PBS broadcast a new documentary by Ken Burns, “The Civil War.” I tried to watch some of it as I could then,
and was quite taken by it. This week PBS
has re-broadcast the series, and I have tried to watch some of it again, and
still find it fascinating.
One of the
significant voices in the series is the poet Walt Whitman. Whitman had published his first and second
editions of his work Leaves of Grass before the outbreak of the Civil
War. In 1865, following the war, he
published Drum Taps, a small volume of poems touching on the themes of
the war and on the death of Abraham Lincoln.
During part of the war, Whitman has served as nurse in hospital in
Washington, D.C. where he had seen some of the horror of the battles. In his book of poems, Drum Taps,
Whitman writes a poem about life in the face of “plodding and sordid crowds,”
of “the empty and useless years.” He
poses a question. “What good amid these,
O me, O life?” It is a powerful question
following a devastating war and the tragedy of a presidential assassination.
response in the 1865 poem. That you are here – that life exists and
identity;/That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse. Whitman is saying that even after the
devastation, the powerful play of life goes on, and you will contribute to it.
revised his work over time, and ended up incorporating many of the poems of Drum
Taps into future editions of Leaves of Grass. What fascinates me is how he changes this
poem, “O Me, O Life” from 1865 to its final version in 1892. That
you are here – that life exists and identity,/That the powerful play goes on,
and you may contribute a verse.
In that change in
Whitman’s poem I hear an echo of the choice Jesus offers us. There is no question that each of us in our
lives, contributes some verse to the ongoing poem or song of life. We are here and exist. We touch other lives and the world. What we have a choice about is the character
of the verse we offer to the on-going play of life. We will contribute a verse, but we may make
it a song of hope, joy, love, kindness, and generosity, a song that sings of a
new life, a soulful life, an adventure in a wild kingdom, a song that gushes
from day to day and sings from night to night, a song that praises God.
thought. Adventure is what we are made for: plunging into new territories,
daring to open up to Beauty’s rich intelligence and fascinating insights. So writes Patricia Adams Farmer in her lovely
book Embracing a Beautiful God (46).
She goes on, we need fellow
travelers for this journey into the adventure of ideas (46).
Welcome to the
wild kingdom, where we live a new kind of life in Jesus, letting somethings in
our lives die because they are not soulful.
We are on this adventurous journey together, and that is a source of
great joy. I am proud to be your pastor. I am proud to be your pastor not because we
have an architecturally significant building in one of the best locations in
the city, a place that most people can find if you just say “Coppertop.” That’s nice and it matters and we want to
care for this building, and I really appreciate the view from my office. I am proud to be your pastor because of what
we do together here. We worship in this
space. We give space to others. We welcome people here to stretch their food
budget every month, and into this space.
We work with others in the community to feed the hungry and help the
hurting. We gently and lovingly invite
others to journey with Jesus and journey with us. We hold each other in our hearts in times of
great joy and times of deep sadness.
It is a joy to be
on this wild kingdom adventure with you.
Labor Day is often
associated with politics. People tend
not to pay a lot of attention to elections until this weekend, and many
candidates use this weekend to begin campaigning in earnest. Of course, already the 2016 presidential
election is making a great deal of news.
The presidential political season seems to have begun early. The intertwining of theology and politics has
also begun. I saw a picture on Twitter
from a big Donald Trump rally in Alabama.
A woman was holding a sign reading “Thank you Lord Jesus for President
I did not grow up
in a very political family. There were
no yard signs or bumper stickers at our house indicating any political
preference. We did not discuss political
issues at the dinner table, or really ever.
Somehow, though, I developed an interest in politics. Here is a book I
ordered from Scholastic, probably in third grade – The Arrow Book of
Presidents. This also tells you I
enjoy buying books and hang on to them for a really long time. In this book, I wrote about the 1968 and 1972
presidential elections. I noted when
Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson died.
Out of a non-political family, I became interested in politics. I remember watching the Watergate hearings,
which said more about my interest in television because in the summer of 1973
that was the only thing that was on tv.
But I watched.
So I developed
this interest in politics, and still maintain that interest. As my faith grew and developed, what
interests me most and engages me most are the theological-moral issues wrapped
up in political issues. I also became
interested in the theology and ethics of democracy. Some of you know that I hold a Ph.D. in
religious studies from Southern Methodist University. My dissertation, and this is the “look how
hard I worked” version – bound with print on one side of a page, is entitled
“Political Majorities, Political Minorities and the Common Good: an analysis of
understandings of democracy in recent Christian political ethics.”
dissertation I argue that the heart of a politics rooted in the Bible and
Christian faith is some notion of the common good. More importantly in my on-going thinking and
living as a Christian, I believe that the moral core of a Christian politics is
working for the common good. The common
good points toward a social arrangement, a quality of community, where all can
share in the goodness of the community and all have opportunity for growth,
development and flourishing. It is a
quality of shared life characterized by work toward justice; enhancing freedom
– particularly the freedom to grow, develop and flourish; enhancing
relationships – which involves increasing inclusion and encouraging
participation in the decision-making processes of the community. The common good, ultimately, is a way of
thinking about how the Biblical idea of the Kingdom of God relates to our lives
here and now. Theologian Nicholas
Wolterstorff argues that the Kingdom of God is a vision of shalom where peace
characterizes our relationships with God, self and others, and where justice
and peace embrace joyfully. This, he
says “is both God’s cause in the world and our human calling” (Until Justice
and Peace Embrace, 72).
The heart of a
politics rooted in the Bible and Christian faith is some notion of the common
good. The moral core of a Christian
politics is working for the common good.
I think this means trying to find common ground with others. I think this means seeing the common humanity
of others. But that has been a challenge
throughout human history.
Proverbs: Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the Lord pleads their cause…. Whoever sows injustice will reap
calamity…. The rich and the poor have
this in common: the Lord is the make of them all. Here is the challenge to find common ground,
to see common humanity, to work for the common good.
But we need to be
reminded. Hundreds of years later, in
the emerging Jesus community, James offers that reminder. My
brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our
glorious Lord Jesus Christ? So
believing has consequences for how we live, apparently. If a
person with gold rings and fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor
person in dirty clothes comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the
fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor
you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions
among yourselves?... You have dishonored
the poor…. You do well if you really
fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor
as yourself.” But if you show
partiality, you commit sin.
It is rather sad
that communities claiming the name of Jesus struggle with this as much as we
do. There are few more powerful stories
about recognizing common humanity than the story told in Mark 7, the encounter
between Jesus and the Syro-Phonecian woman.
Jesus is tired in Tyre. He needed
some down time, but this woman finds him out.
She is a Gentile, a Syrophonecian with a little daughter who was hurting. She came to Jesus and begged him for
help. This may not have been an easy
thing for her to do, seeking help from a wandering Jewish teacher. Jesus makes her quest more uncomfortable with
his uncharacteristically terse and unkind response. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not
fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” To be compared to a dog was highly insulting,
for dogs were regarded as shameless and unclean. Her tenacity and wit are remarkable. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the
children’s crumbs.” Jesus understands
something. “For saying that, you may go
– the demon has left your daughter.”
Jesus should not have been talking alone with a woman, let alone a
Gentile woman. Their encounter is
fascinating and in some ways they both benefit.
Jesus initially seems to see only a Gentile woman asking for something
from him. He ends up seeing her common
humanity, sees her as a caring mother and as a bright woman. His initial response calls out her strength,
perhaps she sees herself differently because of her ability to respond so well. The result is healing.
humanity, seeking common ground, working for the common good – these are part
of the work of God in the world and part of our calling from God. They are a part of kindness. Let me again refer to the theologian Robert
Neville who I quoted last week. Christianity first and foremost is about
being kind. Love is the more customary
word than kindness, but love is too complicated in its symbols, too loaded with
history, to be a plain introduction to Christianity.
Christian faith is
about kindness which involves seeing common humanity and working for the common
good. This is the heart of relationship
between Christian faith and political engagement, but this broad understanding
of the moral core of Christian politics leaves a lot of questions open, as it
should. Neville writes: Sometimes it is hard to tell in what
kindness consists. Whether a social
welfare system is ultimately kind if it creates a long-term dependent class of
people is a debatable point at this stage, and how to amend it to make it more
kind is also debatable. But some obvious
and up-front meanings of kindness should be affirmed before stumbling on hard
cases. These include being generous,
sympathetic, being willing to help those in immediate need, and ready to play
roles for people on occasions of suffering, trouble, joy and celebration that
might more naturally be played by family or close friends who are absent. (Symbols of Jesus, xviii)
what the common good require, in any time and any context can and should be
debated. I would suggest this morning,
though, that having a three-year old Syrian fleeing the violence in his country
wash up dead on a Turkish shore cannot fit any Christian idea of common
humanity, common good, or kindness. How
to respond is complicated, but not caring is not an option for us.
Let me also
suggest this morning that being drawn to seeing common humanity, seeking common
ground, and working for the common good requires our willingness to engage in
difficult conversations about our society and the world. Let me mention a couple just briefly as we
move toward the end of this sermon.
Today, the African
Methodist Episcopal Church is asking predominantly white Christian churches to engage
seriously in conversations about race and racism. The AME was created in the United States out
of the broader Methodist movement due to racial exclusion. We need to continue to talk about race in
this country, and some of these conversations will be uncomfortable. After the recent shooting of a deputy sheriff
in Houston, the county sheriff suggested that we get beyond Black Lives Matter
and simply affirm that all lives matter.
Wouldn’t that be the best way to affirm our common humanity? At one level, yes, of course. However, we cannot simply speak in
abstractions. We must take seriously our
history and in the history of this country black lives have mattered less. Recognizing the common humanity of black
persons means understanding something of their unique history – including
slavery and discrimination, and reaching toward a mutual sharing of stories,
working toward a common good.
There is a unique
history for Native American persons that needs to be heard as well. In the coming months in our community we will
be invited to hear stories of Native children forcibly removed from home and
family and sent to boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their
language or expressing their heritage.
The point of hearing these stories is not to engender paralyzing guilt
but to enhance mutual understanding, to see common humanity and find common
ground for common good.
We are struggling
in this country with wide gaps in inequality that are eroding opportunities for
too many of our people. Equality of
results is not the definition of justice, but too great an inequality is
inconsistent with justice and the common good.
By one measure,
U.S. income inequality is the highest it’s been since 1928. In 1982, the
highest-earning 1% of families received 10.8% of all pretax income, while the
bottom 90% received 64.7% (according to research by UC-Berkeley professor
Emmanuel Saez). Three decades later (according to Saez’ preliminary estimates
for 2012) the top 1% received 22.5% of pretax income, while the bottom 90%’s
share had fallen to 49.6%. Wealth
inequality is even greater than income inequality. A NYU economist (Edward
Wolff) has found that, while the highest-earning fifth of U.S. families earned
59.1% of all income, the richest fifth held 88.9% of all wealth. (Pew Research) It is difficult to fathom that such inequality
is consistent with the common good.
So here’s my hope
in the coming months as politics again becomes more prominent in our national
life. I hope that we will, in the Spirit
of Jesus promote healthy conversations about challenging issues, conversations
that carry beyond the political season, and that go beyond electoral politics. I hope we will, in the Spirit of Jesus, see
common humanity, seek common ground to address important issues, and work for
the common good. In short, I hope we
will be part of God’s work in the world of offering hope and healing, and
offering it right from this place on the skyline. Amen.
song is rather famous in the history of popular music for the use it made of
classical Indian music. That is an
interesting story, but let me tell you another story entirely.
this year I was preparing to officiate at a funeral. I was having a conversation with a daughter
of the person who had died and whose life we would be celebrating. The daughter asked me what I would
preach. The tone of the question was a
little interesting, but I responded that during my reflection I wove stories
about the person with thoughts about Christian faith. “So you preach salvation?” This seemed to be coming from a certain
Christian theological perspective that I was not sure I shared with this
person, and I wanted to be forthcoming.
I did not want them to expect me to say something I would not say. “If by that you mean do I tell people unless
they get their hearts right with God through Jesus they are going to hell, no,
that’s not what I think funerals are for.
I invite people to trust their lives to God, but I say that in the
context of celebrating a person’s life.”
“Well, you know,” she said, “it’s about more than being good.”
that moment it became clear to me that this person, who was not United Methodist,
nor, I think a member of a church in what has come to be called mainline
Christianity, this person was concerned that I was going to say what a good
person her father was and because he was a good person, he was now in heaven. That was her view of what mainline churches
teach about Christianity, and she clearly thinks that such a view is wrong.
about more than being good. Christian
faith is about more than being good. Is
it? A few years ago, a theologian whose
works I find interesting and helpful, Robert Neville – who also happened to
teach at a United Methodist seminary and to be an ordained United Methodist –
Robert Neville wrote this: Christianity
first and foremost is about being kind.
Love is the more customary word than kindness, but love is too
complicated in its symbols, too loaded with history, to be a plain introduction
to Christianity…. Sometimes it is hard
to tell in what kindness consists…. But
some obvious and up-front meanings of kindness should be affirmed before
stumbling on hard cases. These include
being generous, sympathetic, being willing to help those in immediate need, and
ready to play roles for people on occasions of suffering, trouble, joy and
celebration that might more naturally be played by family or close friends who
are absent. (Symbols of Jesus,
not sure I find much to disagree with in this passage of writing, but here’s
where I think confusion sometimes enters.
Sometimes we hear that Christianity is first and foremost about being
kind as a statement that says, “If we are kind, then God will like us and will
admit us into heaven when we die.” For
some reason, we might slip into thinking that Christian faith is about how we
earn God’s love and favor. Christian
faith is NOT about that. It is about
kindness and doing good, but not as a way to earn God’s love, earn God’s
favor. If I emphasize kindness and
goodness as essential to Christian faith, I do not in any way mean to say that
they are what earn us God’s love. We are
not about chalking up brownie points in order to punch our ticket to heaven.
faith, at a deep level, is really about grace, about a love that does not fit
into calculations of earning. Christian
faith is about a God of grace, and our response to this God and this grace in
trust and openness. What the woman
questioning me about salvation and her father’s funeral seemed to think, or at
least what many Christians who criticize more liberal or mainline Christians
think is that it is all about accepting Jesus Christ as your savior. Do that and you’re in, meaning in heaven, and
that’s the heart of Christianity. I
think this, too, is a misunderstanding of the heart of Christianity just as is
the idea that we earn our way into God’s love.
me explain. We ask, at baptism, for
instance, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your savior, put your whole trust in
his grace.” That is an important question,
a vitally important question. At its
best what it means is that we are saying “yes” to the God who is already
touching our lives with grace. To accept
Jesus Christ as savior is to trust in God’s love. Trust is the essence of faith. As I mentioned last week, the religious
philosopher Donald Evans argues that “the most crucial personal struggle in
religion, morality, and life is between trust and distrust” (Struggle and
Fulfillment, 2). Evans argues that
it is a struggle between basic trust and basic distrust, where basic trust is
“an initial openness to whatever is life-affirming in nature and other people
and oneself” (2). We trust that God is
gracious and at work in the world creating and encouraging the creation of what
Patricia Adams Farmer calls “the fullness of Beauty’s gifts: love, creativity,
joy, forgiveness, courage, compassion, enchantment, serenity, and faith for
coping and transcending whatever challenges you face in this unsettling world
of ours” (Embracing a Beautiful God, 2).
faith is not about earning, it is about response, a trusting response to God’s
grace, love, and beauty. Our response is
not simply to soak it all in, though there should be moments for that, moments
when the grace of God and love of God and beauty of God simply seep over and
into us. Our response is not simply to
soak it all in, but to serve. Christian
faith is about being loved and then loving.
Christian faith is about being embraced and then embracing. This grace of God is a grace that is up to
something. It moves us, shapes us,
embraces us, nudges us. This is what the
writer of James is getting at, active grace.
“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers…. Religion that is pure and undefiled before
God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and
to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (1:22, 27) The baptismal question is a little longer: Do
you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace and
promise to serve him as your Lord in union with the Church which Christ has
opened to all people?
active grace of God does not simply affect how we act. The grace of God touches and shapes our
hearts, our souls, our innards. James, who so strongly speaks of actions that
respond to grace, also speaks about the power of grace within. He writes of “the implanted word that has the
power to save your souls” (1:21) Jesus
emphasizes the human heart in the controversy with some Pharisees in Mark
7. “It is from within, from the human
heart, that evil intentions come” (7:21).
Our hearts need work, too, need the touch of grace. Responding to God’s grace affects us, within
you, without you. It is not just about
the afterlife but about what we are after in this life.
and without, both are needed. Both
dimensions of our lives are meant to be places where we respond to God’s grace
and so are changed. Christian faith is
not about earning God’s love or God’s favor, it is about being touched and
transformed by God’s grace within you, without you.
and theologian Marcus Borg argues that there are “two transformations at the
heart of the Christian life: the individual-spiritual-personal and the
communal-social-political” (The Heart of Christianity, 103). “The Christian life is about… ‘being born
again’ and the ‘Kingdom of God’” (126).
Eigen, whose works continue to help me think and grow, hints at this need for
multidimensional transformation. You can’t just work on institutional
injustices without the actual people who are involved working on themselves,
and you can’t just work on yourself without working on the injustices in
society…. Without work in the trenches
of our nature, we may wreck what we try to create. (Michael Eigen, Faith,
I’ve used this
image of the Mobius strip before to describe how God’s grace works in our lives,
to talk about the kind of transformation God seeks to work in our lives. The Mobius strip links inner and outer –
heart and mind and action, kind actions with kind souls. Responding to God’s grace, we are changed
inside. Responding to God’s grace, we
live differently, more joyously, more genuinely, more gently, more generously,
working for justice.
At the end of
things, I structured my remarks at the funeral I began with in the ways that I
typically do, weaving life story and Christian faith together. The woman’s father was a good man, and a
person of Christian faith. I did not say
that because he was good, he had earned his way into heaven. That’s not what I believe. That’s not the story for mainline
churches. I affirmed that God received
this man in love and that God’s love was there for all who were grieving. Whatever qualms the daughter may have had
before the service, she was pleased afterwards.
and life are about inner transformation.
They are about doing good, living with kindness. And centrally, Christian faith and life are
about trusting a God of grace and love who is ultimately trustworthy. Christian faith and life are not about
“earning salvation” but about yearning for more. In words I used last week from theologian
Andrew Shanks, yearning “to imagine more, to feel more, to think more – in
short, to love more. And so to be
inwardly changed. Changed, in the sense
of saved.” (Shanks, What is Truth?, 5)
I am a Christian
not because I fear death and have a gnawing sense that I might be cast into the
abyss. I am a Christian because I know
something of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and being touched by that grace
I am on a journey of being made different, within and without. In the grace of God I find some sense made of
my yearnings to imagine more, to feel more, to think more, to love more. This Mobius strip I have here I made on a
retreat. I made it in response to an
exercise in self-description. God’s
grace helps me make sense of my life. I
am not worried about earning God’s grace, instead I yearn to be made whole by
that grace, to be forgiven, to be made new.
When the end of my life comes, and I hope that will be awhile yet, but
when the end of my life comes, I will trust God for it, even as I trust God
now. For now, the journey continues
- the journey with Jesus for a heart out
of which kindness will flow, rather than evil intention, the journey with Jesus
to be a doer and not just a hearer. The
journey is open to all of us. God’s
grace is there for all of us, awaiting our response in trust and openness. Amen.